We already understand that Do The Right Thing is an iconic movie. The film, which celebrates its 30 year anniversary June 30, was written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee and released nationwide in 1989. The one-day saga takes place during the hottest summer day in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn and holds a mirror up to the state of race relations in the country - much of which still resonates and still stands with us today. It literally changed the way we discuss race in America in film. However, with all of its critical acclaim, what doesn’t get discussed enough is how much the women of the film - whether in front of or behind the camera - grounded the story and cemented its cultural impact. Actresses Ruby Dee and Rosie Perez held down the front while costume designer Ruth E. Carter, and casting director Robi Reed held down the back. It must’ve been a stroke of faith that all of their names start with the letter R because their individual contributions all helped fueled the revolution, rebel filled energy of the film.
In the 1989 New York Times review of the movie, Vincent Caby had this to say about the roles of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. “Miss Dee and Mr. Davis are not only figures within the film but, as themselves, they also seem to preside over it, as if ushering in a new era of black filmmaking.” Born in Harlem, the actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, and civil rights activist had already influenced a generation of artists and filmmakers along with roles like the stage and film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun.
As the vigilant “Mother Sister” in Do The Right Thing, Ruby Dee appeared alongside her real life husband in the film - one of the eleven appearances they made together.
Ruby Dee passed away in 2014, and Spike Lee took to Instagram to pay his respects with a caption that perfectly captured the weight of Ruby Dee and her husband’s impact on Black people in the arts. “It has been one of my greatest blessings in life to work with two of the finest artists and activists-Ruby And Ossie were in the battlefields with Paul Robeson, Malcolm X And Dr. Martin Luther King,” he shared. “Ruby And Ossie served as a living example that one could be an artist and an activist too, that one could be an artist and still deal with what it means to be a Black woman and a Black Man in these United States.”
Often hailed as one of the greatest opening credits in film history, Rosie Perez made her feature film debut backed by Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” with a literal punch in Do The Right Thing. Rosie portrayed Tina, Mookie's (Spike Lee’s character) pretty and feisty Puerto Rican girlfriend and the mother of his son, Hector.
Shortly after, the famed choreographer, author, activist, and actress would go on to star in White Men Can’t Jump and be nominated for her work on In Living Color. The star continues to dazzle through her calls for social change and action and you may have most recently seen her reunite with Spike in Season 2 of She’s Gotta Have It.
Thirty-one years before she made history with Black Panther as the first Black person to win the costume design Oscar, Ruth E. Carter was getting her start with Spike’s School Daze. Right after, she went on to work with Keenan Ivory Wayan’s on I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, followed up by work on Do The Right Thing. The iconic Love Hate rings worn by Radio Raheem, (portrayed by the late great Bill Nunn), Mookie’s Dodgers jersey, the afrocentric clothing weaved throughout the epic tale allowed the style choices for this movie to become a character in itself.
From humble beginnings as a Hampton student costuming stage plays, Carter’s work has brought to life the tangible aspect of Black culture by way of fashion, having worked her magic for movies like The Five Heartbeats, B.A.P.S., What’s Love Got To Do With It, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, House Party 2, Rosewood, and more.
Next to Spike Lee, Robi Reed may have had one of the most important roles in the entire film. The legendary casting director kicked off her career with A Different World and just like Ruth, her formal introduction into film was Spike’s School Daze. In Do The Right Thing, she gave Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence their first feature film debuts and went on to become a critical component in Mo’ Better Blues, Crooklyn, Clockers, Malcolm X and Jungle Fever, introducing the world to Samuel L Jackson and Halle Berry.
Her 30-year career breaking Black talent in Hollywood reads like the master list of Black iconic films: Set It Off, Soul Food, Love Jones, The Best Man, The Tuskegee Airmen and Poetic Justice. She discovered Jamie Foxx, cast Derek Luke in the Denzel directed Antoine Fisher, and cast Beyonce in her first role with Robert Townsend’s Carmen: A Hip-Hopera.
Among all the talk about diversity and inclusion in TV and film, Robi continues to be about the action continuing to make paths for Black people in entertainment as the Vice President of Talent and Casting for Original Programming at BET.
Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for TCM